LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Starting No. 1 in the Kentucky Derby usually equates to not finishing No. 1.
The inside post is a dreaded starting position in the Run for the Roses. The horse can’t veer much to its left at the start because there’s a rail there. The horse can’t veer much to its right either, because there’s a wall of about 25,000 pounds worth of fellow hard-charging thoroughbreds there. Without a perfect break from the starting gate, the horse in the No. 1 post can see its Derby chances vanish in just a few seconds.
This is the predicament that Known Agenda will have to deal with on Saturday in the Kentucky Derby. The Florida Derby winner has one of the world’s top trainers in Todd Pletcher, one of the world’s top riders in Irad Ortiz Jr., and is going to be written off by many bettors simply because he’s starting from a post where no Kentucky Derby starter has won in 35 years.
It’s good news for all the other top contenders. The morning-line favorite, Essential Quality, is unbeaten in his five career starts and has won in a variety of ways. Rock Your World is going to break from the No. 15 post, one spot to the right of Essential Quality, and is coming off perhaps the best performance of any 3-year-old in the race by rolling to a win in the Santa Anita Derby.
Highly Motivated starts in the No. 17 post, Louisiana Derby winner Hot Rod Charlie in the No. 9, the Mike Smith-ridden Midnight Bourbon in the No. 10. All will have plenty of support at the betting windows, and they won’t have any of the challenges that Known Agenda will face.
For the hunch bettors, there many “it’s due to happen” prospects in this race.
Godolphin Stable, the three-time Eclipse Award-winning barn of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum — who owns Essential Quality — isn’t just 0 for 11 in past Derby chances, but none of those horses have placed higher than fourth. Gray or roan horses are 0 for their last 31 in the Derby; Essential Quality and Soup and Sandwich will aim to snap that drought. Javier Castellano will be aboard Highly Motivated; Castellano has yet to win a Derby in 14 previous attempts. Julien Leparoux will be aboard longshot Helium; Leparoux has never even hit the board in 12 previous Derby rides.
The Kentucky Horse Racing Commission received a complaint this week from a group of human rights attorneys and students at the University of Louisville seeking to have Sheikh Mohammed banned from the Derby over alleged human rights abuses. A judge in England ruled that he orchestrated the abductions of two of his adult daughters.
It might be easier just play hunches, colors or favorite numbers than to truly figure this race out.
There are at least six horses in this field that, if they won, it simply couldn’t be called a real surprise. The true-contender list is absurdly long, and that’s the case even with three horses that would have been serious threats — Concert Tour (targeting the Preakness), Greatest Honour (resting) and Rebel’s Romance (targeting the Belmont) — not even in the race.
Essential Quality’s trainer is Brad Cox, whose resume has exploded in recent years with enormous success. And what a story it would be for someone who grew up in the shadow of Churchill Downs — literally two blocks away — to win the Derby. Essential Quality had to dig very deep to win the Blue Grass Stakes as a 1-2 favorite by a neck following a furious stretch drive with Highly Motivated four weeks ago, so the story going into Saturday is really whether that race made the horse better or took too much out of him.
On paper, Essential Quality is the best.
That often doesn’t matter much in the Derby.
There is huge value to be had in this race. Any of the contenders could get to the lead and stay there, especially without a true pacesetter in the field. Medina Spirit having a 15-1 morning line with Bob Baffert and John Velazquez is something bettors cannot ignore. Midnight Bourbon at 20-1 with Smith is another fine exotic investment. Exactas should pay big, triples should pay huge, especially if Essential Quality gets beaten.
But if just looking for a win bet, the call is Known Agenda.
Known Agenda had an inside trip for much of the Florida Derby — granted, a smaller field and he didn’t start from the No. 1 position, but showed he could handle traffic and had the poise to hit the accelerator into open space when a window opened.
At some point in the Derby, a window will open. Ortiz is as good as anybody at hitting those holes and might just have the same toughness as three-time Derby winning jockey Calvin Borel — “Bo-rail,” they called him — did when he famously took the feared inside track and used it to his advantage.
If Known Agenda doesn’t lose the race in the first few strides, he should win it in the final few strides.
The pick: Known Agenda over Rock Your World, Medina Spirit, Essential Quality and Midnight Bourbon.